Side note: Motion aftereffects during a year in transit


My travel ticker keeps rising on this Journey2Psychology, albeit quite slowly during this segment through southern California. The prominent scholars here are many, the major institutions are clustered within a couple of hundred kilometers, and the time to travel/relocate is somewhat minimal. I’m in San Diego, CA now — a beautiful beach oriented community and the first large city north of the Mexican border in California.  The weather is warm, the skies are clear, and the food is fantastic!

(Photo from paragliding shoreline at Torrey Pines, San Diego)

Despite the many pleasures of this place, I’ve had a kind of pit in my stomach — a feeling of oddness that has been hard to identify.  I think that after more than 6 months of travel I’m starting to get antsy just being in one place too long. Road sick, perhaps?  Instead of focusing on this place and my time here,  my mind keeps drifting to the Journey ahead. The next stop, the next iconic scientist, the things that will pull me back on the road and into more unfamiliar terrain. I’m starting to feel more at home as the new stranger in a community than the visitor who is a known quantity. Something that happens in the extreme brevity of most of our stops is that I move fast to meet people, find useful places, and to establish a sense of “roots” (limited though those roots might actually be). Once those modest nesting activities are all accomplished, it is hard to be still. We develop few close and intimate relationships with the people and places of any one location, because, we don’t live there. We are visitors and any local activities we experience and most local friendships have a definite expiration date. That certainly puts a damper on creating strong relationships.

(Although, admittedly I feel quite close to some of the psychologists I’ve spoken with — nothing like spending intensive hours learning about someone’s life from childhood to present, studying their life’s work, and then discussing all of that in detail to feel close to a person. With some we’ve stayed in touch and our friendships have, in fact, grown despite the abruptness of my entry and exit to their lives).

There is also an excitement to be had with the new. How do people interact in this new community? In traffic do they merge respectfully (way to go Aukland for being a highly respectful city) or aggressively — attempting to get that extra, one vehicle length closer to their goal as if their lives depended on it (New Jersey, I’m looking at you)? Do the coffee shops serve a dense, potent roast or a gentler, softer beverage? Are there sidewalks or do people need to drive if they want to safely arrive? Do the bicyclists wear helmets or risk mortality for the breeze it allows? Does the community support a clean and comfortable library? Do the restaurants that serve ethnic food try to homogenize their roots or do they try to represent the food served by the families from those respective origins? Is there art work on the buildings, adorning the public spaces? Do people say hello and greet you if you are a stranger, or do they avoid eye contact and move quickly to bypass you?

These and a million other little observations make each new place unique, fun, and exotic. I get a little bit of adrenaline finding my way with the new set of local challenges.  What I’ve only started to recognize is how quickly this feeling of novelty fades. With consistency over the past few weeks I have not been traveling and instead am settled into a place, a community. Except that I’m not. Not with any permanence, I’m settled but without any real settlement.

Interestingly, it does not seem to have much to do with the stuff we left behind.  When we packed up on this trip, each of us essentially took two suitcases. I grabbed my minimal electronics (computer, phone, Kindle, and audio/visual recording devices), clothes for cold, warm, and semi-formal moments. A few toiletries. Some critical documents for travel and identification. My son supplemented his travel items with some treasured toys/stuffed animals. I won’t chronicle my wife’s items (do I need to say why?). Left behind in storage are so many things. Furniture pieces, artwork, things used for cooking. More clothes, more documents. Collected mementos and items of endearment. Tools, spare parts, spare luggage. Stuff that seems important to have, but not important enough to have with us.  I don’t miss the stuff, or having more things.

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(Photo of a designed wall/color  pattern at UC Riverside)

I do miss the people. Friends and close colleagues in New Jersey who all have their own changing lives. While we’ve been traveling one of my close colleagues retired,  a couple close colleagues had promotions, and exciting new opportunities! Two colleagues died. Others became ill. Life kept happening even without us there to bear witness (Schrödinger, I’m looking at you!).

Mostly as I stay in one idyllic spot in San Diego I miss the sensation of moving forward. I wonder if at the end of this Journey, after I’ve spoken with more amazing people, and traveled close to 50,000 mi/80,000 km, whether I’ll be ready for the end of the Journey. The very real and very exciting work of coalescing all of these travels into its final form(s) is yet to come.  I’ll be intellectually retracing my steps and refamiliarizing myself with the tremendous scholars who were the beacons along this path. Will there be an aftereffect from this year in motion? Will my future feel subdued and mundane after the inspiration and novelty of this year?

In the classic visual research, motion aftereffects are brief. Stare at a waterfall (or other moving pattern) and that constant motion will be habituated, causing things that are still to be seen as moving. The aftereffects are real in vision and can last for several seconds. What is the aftereffect of a year in travel?

Perhaps at the end of this year I’ll be ready to find out!

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(The road stretches long ahead, taken at UC Irvine)

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